All dressed up as if going to church, 2-year-old Benlonoljina Cezar sits on her mother’s lap as four U.S. eye surgeons surround them, weighing the best options to save the girl’s sight.
The toddler fights with them, not wanting to open her eyes. Instead, she wants to sleep. She’s tired after a full day of traveling and waiting with little food and no toys. But Benlonoljina’s mother knows this might be the only chance for her daughter to see a doctor — and she hopes it’s in time to save her eyesight.
Seven months before the doctors visit Benlonoljina’s mother, the 2-year-old was hit with a belt in the eye. About a month later, her eye turned milky white.
With this information in mind, the doctors have to determine if the discoloration is due to the trauma or another underlying cause. If it’s trauma, they know the other eye will be fine, but if it’s something else, Benlonoljina could lose eyesight in both eyes.
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The doctors are part of a Kansas City-based Christian missionary group called the iTeam. The team has traveled to Northwest Haiti Christian Mission in St. Louis du Nord for nearly 16 years performing corneal transplants and cataract surgeries, and removing diseased eyes.
The iTeam isn’t the only group in Kansas City trying to help those with medical issues in Third World countries. Some are faith-based; others work through the medical community. One group, for instance, teams with doctors from the University of Missouri-Kansas City to reach out to those in the Dominican Republic to provide medical outreach.
But in February, it was an iTeam group of 50 doctors and nonmedical staff who went to reach out to those in need. About 30 of them were from the Kansas City area, including ophthalmologists Andrew Moyes, who works in the Northland; William White, who works at St. Joseph Medical Center in south Kansas City; Michael Kneller, who lives in Overland Park and works for the University of Kansas Medical Center; and optometrist Brett Dawson, who works in Independence. The group attracts volunteers from as far as Boston, Canada and Brazil.
The team began taking two trips a year in 2012 to fill the need, one in the fall and one in the winter. But the trips continue to break records for the number of patients seen.
“I think there is so much need for the kind of eye care that we can give, and the environment in Haiti is generally hostile to eyes, ” said Mark Lancaster of Kansas City, North, the iTeam administrator. “It really just doesn’t dent the level of care needed.”
St. Louis du Nord is in the northwest part of Haiti, and the mountainous terrain makes traveling a difficult task for the group.
A typical travel day isn’t limited to 24 hours. After a flight from the United States to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the team stops, and the American doctors meet with a few patients and local Haitian doctors, offering advice and lessons.
Moyes, who often travels with his wife and children, said it’s always a humbling experience to see a patient.
The next day, the team takes another flight in small personal aircraft to Port-au-Paix, Haiti. The final leg of the trip is an hour-long ride on the back of a truck, called a “tap-tap,” to the mission’s base in St. Louis du Nord.
But the difficult voyage is part of why they go there.
Most medical care is in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. This makes health care challenging for those in more outlying areas, and 44 percent of Haiti’s residents live in rural areas.
In their most recent one-week trip in February, the missionaries saw 1,145 patients in the eye clinic; performed 201 surgeries, including cornea transplants; and worked on more than 20 temporary or permanent prosthetic eyes. The group also made it a goal to pray with everyone who walked through the mission gates.
Haiti has only six ophthalmologists for every 1 million residents, according to estimates from the International Council of Ophthalmology. This leaves many patients unable to receive treatment and increases the severity of many cases. Due to the limited number of local ophthalmologists, doctors in Haiti often have to prioritize their cases.
“They want to make sure that this person has an incredibly significant impact on quality of life or activities of daily living (from the affliction). Not just, you know, ‘I’m having trouble driving at night’ or, you know, ‘I’m having a little bit of trouble reading,’ or, ‘I can’t see my golf ball,’” White said.
While the American doctors are highly trained, they often have to learn to adapt and take into account the difficult environments of a Third World country. After surgery, patients don’t always have clean and safe environments. They also might not have somewhere to go if something goes wrong in the following months.
For Benlonoljina, the type of procedure and her age were risk factors. Sometimes the best the doctors can do is give patients medicine and continue to monitor them every year. And after much discussion, this was the advice the iTeam doctors gave to Benlonoljina’s mother.
Patients come to the iTeam with a wide range of medical needs, including dry and itchy eyes and blurry vision. Patients are led through a line where they have their medically relevant history written down, vision tested and ultimately reach the eye clinic where they see a doctor. Local translators are used to help communicate between Haitians and missionaries.
Throughout this process, all nonmedical staff, despite their age or education, are given jobs to help assist with these tasks.
Eleven-year-old Hannah Yi from Boston helps give patients eye drops before surgery, and 12-year-old Emma Kneller from Overland Park uses an eye chart with symbols and a translator to test patients’ eyesight. The chart is similar to letters on charts Americans might typically see at the eye doctor, but the symbols eliminate the possibility of misunderstanding.
Both girls came with their fathers. Michael and Emma Kneller live in Overland Park. He works at KU Medical Center in the anesthesia department and wanted to put his skills to use in Haiti. But he also recognized that his daughter, despite being years away from being able to go to medical school, could help the group in many ways and get something out of it herself.
These jobs also offer older students a chance to have a closer look into possible career choices.
Erin Segstro, 22, a student from Winnipeg, Canada, had the opportunity to work as a nurse with the surgeons. This allowed her to see the surgeries close up, ask questions and incorporate her faith.
“This is a step along the way to kind of see what it’s like and, yes, I still want to do it, so now I’ve been confirmed in my calling, I guess,” Segstro said. “And we’re kind of being the hands and feet of Jesus here on Earth and helping out those we can help with the skill-set we have.”
Mercy and Truth Medical Missions, based in Kansas City, Kan., is among the many other organizations reaching out to help people in Third World countries. According to the group’s website, it is “meeting the spiritual and physical needs of the world through health care and the Gospel.”
Although it has permanent clinics in Shawnee and Kansas City, Kan., the group also sends medical teams to more than 50 countries. Between June and November 2015, members will travel to Malawi, Mexico, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania for 10 to 14 days.
Beyond providing medical care, Mercy and Truth works to provide health and spiritual education to children and families. The group’s website reads: “The Gospel is shared with everyone who is interested.”
Other trips are prearranged primarily through a church rather than an outside organization, such as those organized by Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village. Church members there began traveling to the Dominican Republic in the early 1990s and formed the Dominican Republic Medical Partners, or DRMP. The group partners with local organizations such as the Good Samaritan Hospital or Hospital El Buen Samaritano, the Light a Candle Foundation or Fundacion Enciende Una Luz to help with their trip.
DRMP mostly focuses on four programs: a hypertension station, child health promotion, education and health promoters. Similar to the iTeam, members continue to travel to the same area and provide care for those communities.
According to its website, “The DRMP’s mission is shaped by the gospel that bids us to love our neighbors, both near and far, as we love ourselves.”
The group’s next trip is in November.
One secular group, from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, has been going to the Dominican Republic since 2009 to provide medical outreach in various communities. It teams up with University of Missouri-Kansas City each February to provide medical care in Guatemala.
In 2014, the biosciences university’s group, called DOCARE, saw 2,605 patients from seven rural communities; more than 1,000 of them were children.
And yet another option for those in Kansas City is joining a national or international mission trip team.
Global Health Outreach sends 40 to 50 teams to El Salvador, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Moldova and other locations to help with primary care medicine and dentistry.
Some of the trips have certain special focuses including family trips, student trips and orthopedic surgery teams.
Global Volunteer Network, a mission group not tied to any religious organization, offers trips to 19 countries with projects composed of teaching, construction, wildlife or medical work.
The group is based in New Zealand, but most of its volunteers come from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Programs include longer internships or short-term mission trips including spans of one week to one month.
Five years ago, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, causing the iTeam to have to reschedule its annual February trip for the following May that year. Although, St. Louis du Nord received little structural damage in the Haitian quake, residents were hit hard economically.
Stephen Jernigan, director of Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, said that before the earthquake, a lot of people originally from St. Louis du Nord were in Port-au-Prince for jobs and would send money back to their families.
But after the earthquake, those jobs didn’t exist, and they were forced to return to St. Louis de Nord where jobs were still scarce. As families struggle economically, little money is left for eye care.
“Life is pretty difficult here,” Jernigan said. “People go their whole lives suffering with inconveniences, like not being able to see very well or having no vision in one eye, or they have a tumor behind one eye that progressively just gets worse, and they’re always dealing with this pain.
“And the iTeam can catch that and fix it and make life just a little bit easier here.”
But the work doesn’t stop with surgeries; the iTeam helps the mission in any way they can while they’re there.
Northwest Haiti Christian Mission runs other day-to-day operations. Beyond the medical ministry, which includes the eye clinic, birthing center and a general clinic, the mission has a children’s home for orphaned or abandoned children, a special-needs center and elder care.
Outside the mission walls, Northwest Haiti Christian Mission has a prison ministry, which helps advocate for the prisoners’ needs. The organization also has a brothel ministry, which helps girls and young women find other ways to make a living and save enough money to leave the brothels.
The iTeam works with these programs to fulfill other roles and services to the community while they are there. Some of these jobs include operating a clinic for a few hours at a local prison and participating in the “meals on heels” program.
During the meals program, team members visit houses in extremely impoverished areas of the town to deliver food. This gives the team a chance to interact more with the community, playing with children and saying hello to people they remember from years past.
The iTeam already has plans to go back to Northwest Haiti Christian Mission Oct. 2-10, and again Feb. 11-20.
In the future they hope Haitian ophthalmologists will take over their mission. For now though, the iTeam will continue with trips to monitor patients like Benlonoljina and work to find a permanent solution for her and others like her.
“To give them the advantage I have is a wonderful gift,” Lancaster said. “You just have to find something you can make difference in.”
Freelance writer Heather Adams, a student at the University of Missouri, traveled to Haiti for an independent study project at MU.